Words By Ernest J. Matthews
“Where shall we have lunch?” A question Douglas Adams wrote showed the highest level of a civilization. It’s a question many ask every day, and while eating is one of the biggest social activities we do, I prefer to do it in solitude. For me, it’s about the simplicity of keeping it a meal instead of turning it into anything more. Allowing the mind to wander, the senses to loose and the soul to rest. It gives one the chance to really absorb one’s surroundings, and even more so, the food.
There is a mild stigma to dining alone, but with a few stories I hope to help break that. In no way would I like anyone to feel this is any sort of judgment of an establishment. It’s more of a heartfelt telling of an experience I enjoyed in one of the many gastronomic points of interest in our great city. Some of these places are ones I frequent, while others have come by suggestion. One of the first that comes to mind is Karai Ramen Bistro.
I originally saw some ads for Karai on social media but didn’t try it until a few comrades of trusted opinions mentioned it. It’s always good to surround yourself with those who have similar palates and a few with opposing ones just to keep things interesting. Luckily this wasn’t my first time there because it’s not the easiest place to find. On the corner of Beach Boulevard and San Pablo Road lies a large plaza with this unassuming restaurant in between a row of other businesses. The martial arts studio next door was in full swing with many tired parents waiting out front. (I can only imagine the crushing boredom of waiting for your child’s after-school activities to be over.) I walk inside to a small but welcoming dining area, and the lovely smell of simmering broth soon to become nourishment hits me. I have made the right choice today.
I seat myself at their “bar,” which is more of a half wall near the kitchen, but it serves its purpose well. A row of Japanese beer and sake sits on top of that wall for all to see, as they serve a greater purpose. The server comes over to take my drink order. I ordered some water and an unfiltered sake, a favorite of mine even though its name escapes me. My server gives a slight smile and walks away. She is stern but not rude. I shift my eyes to the artwork: scenes of flowers, birds and unfamiliar characters on the wall. Some ornate teapots catch my eye as well, lending to the traditional aesthetic. I considered ordering some tea, but my focus quickly changed as my sake arrived.
She sets the bottle down with a small red cup, and after a minute of contemplation, I oblige. It’s probably rude to drink it straight from the bottle. Notes of white grape and a light nuttiness play on my tongue, the creamy texture coating my mouth. A good palate cleanser for the meal ahead.
I always take some time to check the menu. I had considered a pork broth earlier, but the council that was my taste buds craved spice. The Akai Katsu Chicken Ramen had won the vote, and the Tonkotsu would have to wait. I had this before so I also knew to order the Katsu chicken appetizer with it. The ramen came with two but the extra appetizer is worth it, as it often comes out before the ramen. My peppery chicken and duck broth was en route, and I needed to prepare for its arrival. I take some napkins and ready my chopsticks and spoon to the side. Karai conveniently puts these at the table with a few different sauces to add at your leisure.
The Katsu tenders arrive first (as expected), and I instantly tear into one. Steam pours out to remind me it’s too hot to eat. I ignore that. The crispiness of the panko and the salty soy glaze put on a show. A perfect opening act, but I still leave two tenders for the finale.
After some minutes and half the bottle of sake, the moment had come. A steaming bowl of rich broth, fried scallions, red onion and noodles lay before me. The chicken tenders lie on top with a custard egg and green onion to garnish. I once again ignore the temperature. The flavors are bold but refined, the raw onion bursting its flavor into the broth with a light crunch. The noodles come into play with a light but noticeable chewiness, a cozy contrast of texture. The breading on the Katsu absorbs the flavor of the broth becoming a part of it; the tender chicken inside adding to the bite. As I take my last sip of the meal, I can feel the heat from the peppers throughout my mouth, and the satisfied council of taste buds take a recess.
At this point, the restaurant was full. The seat next to me and a single table waiting to be bussed were all that were left. There were a few delivery drivers awkwardly awaiting their orders, and the fact they were impeding the way to the restroom did not occur to them. While checking an email, the other server had snuck behind me and taken the remnants of my dinner. I’ll admit it, she scared the heck out of me. My server made her way back and I gave her my card. She returned my receipt with another slight smile and we went our separate ways. Another lovely dinner with myself and some quiet contemplation.